Archive for February, 2011
I’ve just had one of those days where, by the end of it, I can barely believe I’m still standing. I had about six million things to do, it all had to be done as quickly as possible, the places it had to be done all had to be inconveniently driven to, and there was thick fog and freezing rain.
And then, of course, we’ve got the obvious–two of those things could not be finished up today, so that I’m stuck going out at seven in the morning tomorrow to get them done.
It would be redundant to say that I need staff.
But the small good part is that all of this was actually important stuff, and not the endless make work of modern going along to get along. So at least I feel like I’m accomplishing something.
Or doing the groundwork for accomplishing something.
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the posts of the last few days, and I want to get into a side issue.
Except that it isn’t a side issue.
Most of the students I teach are poor.
They are, in fact, very, very poor. They’re not working class. They’re not “working poor.” They come from families that are destitute or something close to it.
If they’re “minorities,” they tend to come from the cores of small, dying industrial cities. If they’re lucky, they live in public housing projects. If they’re not, they live in one of the nearly ubiquitous “triple deckers,” wood frame houses with single apartments that run through each floor, three floors tall.
A lot of my white students live in triple deckers, too, but the ones they live in tend to be in more rural areas. There are a lot of triple deckers lining the two-and-three street town centers of towns with populations in three figures.
The trouble with the three deckers is that they catch fire a lot, and when they catch fire they always seem to take a few people with them. I knew a woman–not a student–who lost both of her two small children in one of those fires.
Here’s the thing–the places I teach are relatively cheap, and they offer a lot of financial aid. No matter how much financial aid they offer, however, they’re almost never free, and that means that they’re charging kids whose families often either don’t have a car or have one that shares out with everybody (and starts about two thirds of the time), who lose their heat at least once every winter, who think TGI Friday’s is an “expensive” restaurant–they’re charging these kids and their families money out of pocket to learn skills that they would have been able to learn free (with no out of pocket at all) in high school fifty years ago.
Whenever I hear somebody rattling on about “massive transfers of wealth” from the poor and middle class to the “rich,” this is what I think of, and it holds for lots of kids whose parents make a lot more money.
A year of tuition, room and board at a private university these days–not a good private university, but any private university–tends to run a minimum of $45,000 a year.
If the kid is exceptionally talented and can actually get into an Ivy or the equivalent, the out of pocket won’t be all that bad–in the range of about $8,000 or so.
But a lot of perfectly ordinary middle class kids from perfectly ordinary middle class families are paying full freight for second and third tier universities, at prices quite a bit higher than the minimum, and with little or no help.
What they get for their money is almost never a real education in either Robert’s sense of the term or mine. They don’t learn useful vocational skills, and they aren’t introduced to the scope and depth of Western culture, either.
They spend four years taking a mishmash of random courses that don’t hang together in any particular way, at standards of “accomplishment” that wouldn’t have passed muster at a Gold Coast high school in 1969.
Their colleges do the best possible job of spending as little as possible to provide them with the “education” they think they’re paying for–hiring more and more part timers at rock bottom wages, raising class sizes, scrimping on the equipment provided in labs and practicums, requiring “general education” classes that amount to a kind of head tax, and offering courses required for the majors only alternate years, so that most students have to spend five or six (instead of four) expensive years getting through to the degree.
And all to end up at “skill levels” they would have reached before they graduated from high school fifty years ago.
In a real sense, we have done away with free public education in the United States.
The very best of our public schools do a stellar job for about the top ten percent of their students. A Wilton High School will give its honors students an education that will beat Exeter’s on virtually every level.
But everybody else–at Wilton, too, but especially at lesser schools–is left to float, to “graduate” with little in the way of useful skills and many fewer at a much lower level than they would have managed a generation ago.
And if they want to actually graduate from high school–to have the skills and knowledge they should have as high school graduates–well, they’d better be sure to be ready to lay out a lot of money and take a lot of loans.
I have no idea if I’m being very coherent here, but what seems to me is going on here is a massive scam–the educational equivalent of charging the same price for tuna fish but making the can only six ounces instead of eight.
And the prices keep going up every year, just as the standards keep going down.
I mean, sigh.
First, let me state what should be obvious–I wasn’t talking about useless “arts” degrees.
Granted, a useless arts degree would be just as useless as any other useless degree. But an arts degree that actually was an arts degree would be very useful indeed, although in no sense vocational.
The useless degrees I was talking about, however, are useless business degrees.
Virtually all the people I’m talking about have undergraduate “degrees” in “business administration,” “management,” marketing,” “human resources” and other areas of that kind.
And the problem with those “degrees” is that they have virtually no content, no standards, and apply to nothing in the real world that exists outside of deliberate bureaucratic constructions.
Cathy’s director of student services, director of undergraduate studies and director of graduate studies will all have these kinds of degrees, as will all the people working under them, and there will be lots of them.
But those positions are at least screamingly within sanity, sort of. How about a “director of student success,” with a staff of fifty? For a college with, say, about 3000 undergraduates?
In case you’re wondering what a “director of student success” and an “office of student success” do, they: keep track of the attendance and grade records of every student in every class; contact students who are failing to show up to urge them to show up; counsel students about the root causes of their failure to show up; keep track of students who are not handing in homework; provide tutoring for students to get them to hand in homework; run a writing center to provide students with editing services if they are unable to produce papers in standard college English…
You get the picture.
Here’s the thing about the “office of student success.”
First, as Cathy F notes, something of this kind eats up enormous amounts of money that could be used to hire faculty and staff for regular academic departments. The present state of full time vs. adjunct faculty is almost certainly at least partially the result of the growth of just such departments as this.
Second, this department eats up enormous amounts of faculty time for both full and part timers, because as part of its “mission” it requires faculty to submit reqular reports on student attendance, student grades, and student compliance with assignment deadlines.
Third–and this is the kicker–this department is completely unnecessary at any university that is actually functioning as a university.
It exists only because the university in question does not see its mission as educating anybody. It sees its mission as getting paying customers in the seats and keeping them there.
That’s why it’s more than willing to spend full-time salary and benefit packages on 24 year olds with bachelor’s degrees in human resources, but virtually no money (and less and less every year) on faculty to actually teach the students anything.
And since its mission has become getting paying customers in the seats and keeping them there, it doesn’t really care too much about whether or not the students who are admitted actually have the preparation to do actual college level work.
It therefore admits more and more students every year whose preparation is inadequate even for higher-level high school work. It then shoves as many of these kids into “developmental” (read “remedial”) classes as it can, reduces requirements in regular courses to the ludicrous (it’s possible in some of the schools I know for a student to get through four years of “college” without every being required to read a single complete book or to do a research paper of any kind), and, when even that doesn’t work–well, we’ve got the “office of student success.”
At the end of four or five or six years of this kind of thing, you have a student who “graduates” with a “degree” that signifies…well, it isn’t quite clear what.
Even a degree in fingerpainting would have real value in the real world if it required students to read several whole books a semester and understand them and do the old-time standard 20 to 40 page research paper every single term with correct documentation and extensive sourcing.
At the very least, such a degree in fingerprinting would tell us that the student who successfully completed it was capable of sustained effort in a complex goal, the ability to discover and organize disparate elements of that goal, and a whole host of other things.
A student with one of these “business” degrees can “earn” one while never having to produce a single long paper, ever. All tests are multiple choice or short answer, and the questions and answers are up on Blackboard in advance. None of what he writes has to have correct grammar, punctuation and spelling–if we required that, too many people would flunk out.
If he can’t get his act together to get to class or get his homework in, no matter how meager that homework is, there’s the “office of student success” to follow him around.
And when he graduates, he’ll get a job in…one of those same administrative departments.
Yes, of course, while he has this job, he’ll be getting real pay and real benefits and living a comfortable enough life.
But he’ll be doing it at the expense of the rest of us. It costs us all a lot more to keep these offices and departments open than the salary and benefits of their staffs and directors.
It costs us first because such offices actually make the businesses and organizations they function in less profitable, less efficient, and less resistant to downturns in the economy and other random problems in the environment.
It also costs us because we’ve created a class of people for whom “college” is a largely standardless, valueless waste of four years whose only reason for existing is to make one “pay one’s dues,” after which he is entitled to a “career.”
And, of course, when businesses and other organizations start getting wise to just how wasteful this all is, the result is…a big pack of “middle class college graduates” who can’t get “middle class college graduate” jobs.
Businesses, by the way, are often stuck with similar largely useless or dysfunctional departments–departments to ensure compliance with Byzantine and often contradictory regulations and court decisions (see all equal opportunity hiring guidelines and then add court decisions about reverse discrimination), departments that exist as attempts to bulletproof the organization against employee and customer law suits–you can run this around the block a few hundred times.
Yes, there are certainly common sense regulations that must exist to keep this society functional, but we live in a situation where government tries to micromanage businesses and organizations and where businesses and organizations respond by trying to micromanage their employees, clients and customers.
But it’s all an illusion. Big Giant Corp doesn’t move its operations to China because it can pay an engineer there a fifth of what it pays one here.
That’s very nice, but the real bait is this: it can do without a good five or six of its big bureaucratic departments altogether. That’s saving it a lot more money than the mere differential in particular salaries for particular positions.
To the extent that AI will take over these kinds of jobs–I saw, great. They shouldn’t exist to begin with.
Do I think this means that there will be nothing but billionaires and starving masses?
I think what it will mean is that we’ll finally have to start coming back to reality.
Eventually, we’ll have to except what is true: spending four years reading a chapter a week in a textbook and taking multiple choice exams twice a term does not make you “college educated,” even if the piece of paper you got at the end of it says you are; declaring the wonders of the progress we’ve made in getting more and more people to graduate from high school or college does not mean we’ve actually done it if we’ve only done it by dumbing down the standards to the point where each level actually only indicates the accomplishments of two levels below it from a decade ago; that there is no way to be “safe” and there never was.
I haven’t even gotten started on the thing about “don’t you dare get a job at McD’s to pay the bills when you’ve been laid off, because no decent business will ever hire you again for the kind of job you used to have.”
All right. That’s not much of a post title, but I start a lot of sentences that way.
It’s Saturday, and I’ve been informed by a flurry of frantic e-mail that it’s been five days since I’ve posted to this blog, or maybe six.
And I don’t even have the standard excuses. Usually, what happens is that it gets so cold that working in my office is excruciating. I work in a sunroom, and I like it that way almost all the time. I’ve got two walls of windows that let me look out on the back yard. I can see turkeys and plot their murder. I can see the neighborhood dogs and wonder why people let them wander around like that. I can watch birds and squirrels. Mostly, I can avoid that closed-in feeling that makes it so hard for me to work.
The downside, of course, is that two walls of windows are not much protection when the temperatures hit minus 7, no matter how high I put on the heat in the auxilliary heater.
But, like I said, nothing like that has been happening around here lately. Mostly, I’ve just not been sleeping much. I’ve got the new Gregor, whose deadline has been pushed up, so I’m doing almost twice as much editing as I ordinarily would to get the final draft in on time. Then I’ve got the natural worries over Greg, whose first surgery is tentatively scheduled for the 17th of March.
Then I’ve got school, but school has been less of a strain than it normally is. I’ve got my schedule down to exactly one course that runs two days a week, in the early morning, so that by Wednesday I’m on a long week-end. Other than that, I may pick up a night course for adults that runs only one night a week, and in the frame, too, so I’d still have the long week-end.
At any rate, there’s not a lot of teaching to keep it on my mind. But the double work load on the Gregor novel means my back aches a lot, which means I don’t want to sit at the computer, which means I don’t write a blog post.
And, you know, with no sleep, I’m not sure how coherent I’d be anyway.
But I have been thinking about blog posts, mightily aided in that effort by the fact that Mike is also posting on FB, and what he’s posting is more doom, gloom, and AI is going to take everybody’s job away until we’re all lying in the street.
Which I still don’t agree with, but in my befuddled state over the last couple of days I actually tried to come up with something concrete to say about all this.
I therefore took a survey of exactly 92 people. This is not a statistically significant sample, and it’s not a randomly chosen one. The people were Bill’s cousins as far as I know them, plus their spouses, and my cousins on one side of my family (the other side is more difficult to get in touch with) and their spouses. Beyond these 92, I also talked to all the adjuncts I know that I could get in touch with, which was another couple of dozen.
I want to report what I found in a second or two, but first I want to clear things up.
One of the problems with this entire discussion is that too many of the terms are vague. What’s a “high paying job?” Who counts as “middle class?”
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to stipulate the following:
a) A middle class job is one in which the person working makes at least $45,000 a year and works in an office, or in sales, or in some other capacity that is not labor with ones hands, and which offers benefits, at least to the extent of health insurance.
b) An upper middle class job is one that satisfies all the requirements of the above but pays at least $100,000 a year.
c) A working class job is one that requires one to work with ones hands in some way, and that pays whatever it pays.
I deliberately left the question of the pay of working class jobs open, for reasons that will be plain a little further down.
But what I did not do is to define what makes a “well paying” job. And I didn’t do that because I don’t know how to control for the situation on the ground. If you make $60,000 a year and you live in Westport, you’re poor. If you make that much and live in Fremont, Nebraska, you may very well be the richest person in town.
For the purposes of “well paying,” we’ll say “gets your bills paid, including your mortgage, and gets you some of the things you want as well as all of the things you need.”
So, given these more or less loose definitions, how are my 92 doing?
Actually, pretty well.
Bill’s father and his father’s brothers, as well as some of the men on his mother’s side of the family, worked in a local vacuum cleaner factory. It was unionized. It also packed up and moved to North Carolina back in the 1980s.
Of, their children, Bill’s cousins, all but one is working, and all of them are working full time. And all their spouses are working full time who want to be.
The exceptions: one member of the family just spent several years not working at all so that he could help his wife through terminal cancer. He’s in bad health himself, and it’s unclear to me if he’s physically capable of going to work at all. At any rate, he isn’t looking at the moment.
Two of the wives have small children and are working part time until those children are older. I was informed, sometimes loudly, that this was their choice and I’d be an elitist bitch to assume otherwise.
So, you know, let’s let that one stand.
Every single person on that list working full time makes a middle class salary as defined above, and all of them have health insurance through their employers.
Every single family has taken at least one “away” vacation in the last two years–and that means since the economic turn down. The favorite choice was a week at DisneyWorld, and I’ve looked it up. It’s not cheap.
Every single one of these families owns its own house and is current on its mortgage. Most of them, to be fair, bought those houses before the 90s boom in prices.
Only two people had been laid off since this turndown, and both of them worked for large organizations with layers and layers of middle managers.
And both were middle managers. Both of them found jobs with comparable salaries within eight months of being laid off, and both of them found “middle class” jobs. The jobs, however, were in much small organizations or institutions.
Of course, these are the kinds of jobs Mike is afraid AI will replace, but they’re also the kinds of jobs I tend to think of as “largely useless.”
I posted something about this ages and ages ago, but I’ll say it again. We have a huge load of people in this country who are essentially doing no useful work. They have jobs and titles and salaries and benefits, but they produce very little and nothing of substance. The “work” they do is largely an artefact of the bureaucratization of business and the professions.
Government offices can afford to do that kind of thing forever. Private businesses cannot. Those jobs were going to go whether AI was invented or not.
That said, the rest of the group is interesting. The best paid among them, and the only ones who are financially in the upper middle class, are all working class on any other measure. It turns out that plumbers make very good livings.
The most impressive of the group were the two brothers who went into a plumbing business together a couple of decades ago, and in the meantime have managed to send 6 children through four year college courses without need a dime in loans to do it.
The least impressive of the group is the guy who works part time as a golf pro at a country club and full time as a PE teacher in the public schools in one of the less well-heeled towns of the state. His children are still small, so I don’t know what college is going to amount to. He was, however, one of the people who took his family to DisneyWorld for a week this year, and his wife stayed home full time until the kids entered school. She now works part time in a dentist’s office.
Oh, and the other thing.
Every single one of these families (except the one with the wife who died of cancer recently) has a higher standard of living than their parents did.
It isn’t true that there are “no jobs” or even that there are no “well paying middle class jobs.” And there are certainly many jobs that AI isn’t likely to snatch away from us (somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be a computer fixing my toilet).
What is true, however, is this, and that’s where the experience of the adjuncts came into play:
1) It is certainly true that certain kinds of jobs are disappearing, and those are not just manufacturing jobs but also the middle-management paper pushing gigs in large organizations.
The reason they’re not disappearing from smaller organizations is that smaller organizations almost never have the money to hire them in the first place.
But as difficult as it might be for the people who have these jobs to lose them and not be able to find another, the simple fact is that they were an illusion to begin with. They’re the artefact of 60 years of demanding that everybody go to college and, when that ran into the wall that is reality, dumbing down the standards to the point where “college” became a euphemism for “junior high school level skills.”
And all of it delivered to kids with the message that those other jobs–plumber, electrician, machinist, you name it–were “bad” for a whole host of reasons.
We have created a generation of workers who have never made any useful contribution to society and who have been miseducated in a way that makes it unlikely they ever will be able to.
But the second thing is more interesting yet, and that’s where the adjuncts come into play.
The adjuncts have, by and large, the kind of jobs Mike is talking about–part time, paying practically nothing, offering no benefits.
Most of them are not unionized, but the ones that are are actually hurt by the unions they’re forced to join. Those unions do not represent adjuncts directly, they represent “faculty,” in which is included full-time faculty.
The problem is that the interests of full time faculty and the interests of part time faculty are not necessarily in alignment.
The union has certainly gotten compensation-per-course levels raised to close to double what they were ten years ago, but at the same time it has negotiated contracts with the institution that include a limit on the number of courses an adjunct can teach in any one semester.
The result is that adjuncts getting the new, higher salaries are actually making less money–by over a third–than they were at the original low salary when they had no restrictions on the number of courses they can teach.
And, since the contract stipulates that full time faculty must be provided extra courses to teach at adjunct salaries any time they want them, even if the only way to give it to them is to throw an adjunct out of the course she’s already been hired for–well, tough for the adjunct.
And, of course, since such switches tend to come just days before the semester starts, there is no time for the adjunct to find another teaching job at another place.
Of course, the union also demands that the disrupted adjunct be offered another course in compensation, but it does not require that that course be on-site. That means that an elderly adjunct who cannot drive at night can be offered a night course at a satellite campus forty miles away–and if she turns it down, oh, well. That’s her choice.
Adjunct faculty positions are among the worst available out there for “middle class” people, but here’s the thing that really hit me.
In every single case, the difference between whether an adjunct managed to get out of the slave labor pool and into a full time job was easily predicted by age.
Almost all the full time people at my place had been adjuncts. Every single one of them had applied for their full time positions when they were in their thirties.
Every single adjunct I could find who first applied for a full time position after the age of 48 had failed to find one.
And yes, I know. It’s against the law. But it goes on anyway.
I’m willing to bet that this situation is general–that if you work at a standard white collar job and lose it, your chances of getting another one can be reliably predicted by age.
Some of this is rational. It’s a pain in the butt to try to hire somebody new. If I hire somebody who is 50 now, he’s likely to be gone in ten or fifteen years. It’s expensive to provide health insurance for people over 50, so the younger my work force, the health care costs for the business go up.
(Watch for a lot more age discrimination under the new insurance mandates.)
Part of it is a matter of existing set-in-stone bureaucratically derived pay scales: person X with Y experience MUST BE paid more than person C with D experience. Given a choice, they’ll take C.
Which means that the longer you work and the better you are at what you do, the bigger a liability you become.
But I seem to have written a book here, and I’m really tired.
So maybe I’ll try to get back to all this later.
And Mike says:
>>>”OF COURSE jobs came to replace all those he listed–jobs as software engineers, technical writers, special effects technicians, CGI artists and directors,”
And I say: YES.
I wasn’t giving a comprehensive list, just a set of examples.
And the fact is that there are not fewer jobs in the US now than there were 50 years ago, there are more.
And some of those jobs certainly pay less, but some of them pay more, and some jobs that used to pay very badly pay much better now than they did.
And yes, eventually the jobs we know of now will go away too–they always do–and it will be something else in demand instead of what we have.
And then what will work will be something else.
And then, like now, most jobs WON’T be in big companies or offer stability.
As for the rocket–bring it on.
I’m not afraid of this kind of change, and I see no indication that we have stopped being what we have always been: the creature that innovates and invents.
I don’t have a lot of patience with the idea that well, these new jobs won’t count, because you won’t be able to do them if you haven’t bothered to get much training and you’re not very bright.
This is beginning to remind me of the obesity hysteria–we’re all getting fat and dying early because of obesity related diseases!
Except, well, on the whole we’re all getting fat, but we’re ALSO (on the whole) living longer.
Somebody ought to investigate the dissonance.
The machines are taking all our jobs away–but on the whole, we’ve got more jobs (not less) than we used to have and one the whole people are better (not worse) paid than they were before.
Don’t believe me?
Go look at the average middle class house from, say, 1955. It’s about 1000 square feet (half the average now), has no central air conditioning, contains exactly one television and one if any cars. There are no game systems, no computers, no DVDs, and very little in the way of stuff to play music except maybe on single hi-fi, and probably not.
And, yes, we do go into debt for some of that (or some people do), but not nearly everybody does, and debt levels won’t even begin to explain the expansion of personal comfort over the last 50 years.
And the bottom line is and always will be simply this:
Apple gets to be a billionaire company by selling things to people who are not billionaires. That’s the case with everybody else–oil companies, electric companies, electronics companies, you name it.
The dystopia you imagine cannot exist.
If we ever even approached it, it would fall apart. Wealth isn’t just “there.” It must be created. An Apple Computer with nobody to sell computers to will go bankrupt. A Google without companies able to sell stuff to people and therefore take out ads would go bankrupt.
The consumers are as important to the system as the producers. A world in which Apple makes one computer a year for one rich guy in Malaysia is a world in which Apple is just about as poor as everybody else.
And everybody knows it.
Every once in a while, I’ll admit, I get frustrated.
But let’s see what I can do about this.
Mike Fisher wrote:
>>>The steel mills went away. And no jobs came to replace them.
Many of the auto plants have gone away. And no jobs came to replace them.
Other manufacturing jobs have gone away. And no jobs came to replace them.
Then help desk jobs went away. And no jobs came to replace them.
Law firms (some of them anyway) are farming out much of their legal research overseas. And no jobs have come to replace them.
Oh, some of the people have moved on to other jobs. Low paying, usually service industry of some kind, jobs.
Now the machines are threatening to take over even the jobs that have been shipped overseas AND higher skilled jobs that are, as yet, still here.
There will be no jobs to replace them.
It hasn’t worked that way in a long time.
And this is such unrelieved nonsense, I don’t know where to begin.
OF COURSE jobs came to replace all those he listed–jobs as software engineers, technical writers, special effects technicians, CGI artists and directors, all those people who do everything necessary to get you CDs, DVDs, cable and digital television…
And I could do that for a day and a half, listing all the jobs that didn’t exist in the year I am born that people work at now, many of which are actually going begging because we can’t find the people able to do them.
If no jobs had come to replace the ones that went missing in more traditional industries, we would have fewer jobs available to do than we used to have. We in fact have more.
If all the jobs that came to replace the ones that went missing were lower paying than the ones we lost, then we would have fewer higher paying and more low paying jobs available–and what we have is the opposite. There is actually a lot more and a lot higher paying work for people with training than there has ever been before, and there’s no sign I can see of that stopping.
What will we do when automation takes over all that other stuff, assuming it does?
I don’t know. It will be something we haven’t invented yet.
All the doomsday scenarios depend on the assumption that people will stop being people. We will not invent anything new. We will not change in any way. Everything will stay just the way it is now, except automation will come and take our jobs away.
I’ll say it again–nonsense.
Or, not to sound elderly, bullcrap.
Part of the problem here is the the unstated assumption–if jobs go away, the only was they can be “replaced” is as jobs for the same people at the same skill levels with the same benefits and salaries as before.
But that’s never happened, and it’s never going to happen.
Some of what Mike is discribing is what I think of as a correction, and I think it’s very real that that correction is coming. It’s just that I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a good one.
Until very recently, neither teaching nor medicine was considered a way to make a great salary and great benefits.
Because these are not market operations. Neither sick people nor very young people have lots of money. They can’t pay through the nose to learn Aristotle or get their gall bladders fixed.
We’ve blinded ourselves to this reality by pushin the payment for these services off on third parties–insurance companies and the government, mostly–who can pay inflated wages and benefits for skills that have always been in demand, but that have never before been remunerative.
And I probably spelled that wrong.
In the years before WWII, college professors had patches on their tweed jackets not as a fashion statement, but because without them the jackets got holes and the professors weren’t making enough money to get them replaced. Doctors were in the same boat.
People who went into these profession went into them out of dedication, not the conviction that this was the best way to be the snag the accoutrements of the upper middle class. Hospitals and schools were deemed charitable institutions and given tax exemptions on the assumption that they provided a service that could not and probably should not be provided profitably.
If we’re going back to that, I’m really not going to be very upset. It bugs the hell out of me that I am taxed at a higher and higher rate to keep a hospital like, say, Yale-New Haven open, when that place operates its billing department in ways that would be deemed unacceptable in a credit card company.
As for writers, a fair number of people would say that your only choice would be either no career or best selling author now, but it’s not that simple.
First, a lot of what Mike is talking about happened a long time ago, even if not with the aid of AI. The mystery magazines were paying the same rate per word for short stories in 1980 as they had been in 1930. Do the math and you’ll see that that was an enormous cut in pay, so much so that it was no longer possible, by 1980, to make a living writing mystery stories. A
As for short articles in magazines–well, if they can do that, God bless them. But it won’t save the magazines anyway, more and more of which are going out of business every year.
And they’re going out of business for precisely the reason I’m not worried about machines taking over from writers, artists, and musicians any time soon.
The machine scenario is just stage forty-seven of the corporate “takeover” of movies, books, television, and music. That’s in scare quotes because it hasn’t actually happened.
What has happened is this:
Great, big, huge media conglomerates have arisen, and they have proceeded to behave like great, big, huge media conglomerates.
The kind of people who are successful in such organizations have no idea why people listen to music or go to the movies or read books. They look around at what sold well last year and go, “Aha! What people want is detective stories about nuns with talking cats! We’ll get somebody to write a talking cat mystery!”
So they do that, and their talking cat mystery flops all over the place, and they wander away confused–but also panicked.
Something went wrong, but they don’t know what. And since they don’t know what, they don’t know how to stop it from going wrong the next time. They do know that talking cat mysteries are just bilge. Nobody wants those.
So the next really good talking cat mystery to come along gets turned down by every big conglomerate. Then it gets picked up by a small press. Then it takes two years to hit #4 on the Amazon list.
Then…all the conglomerates want talking cat mysteries again.
You see it happen in music and movies all the time.
The very same technology that makes it possible for the conglomerates to get away with hiring fewer and fewer people means that individuals who aren’t conglomerates or much or anybody at all can make and market their own books, records, movies and Internet television shows.
It’s happening as we speak. Dan Brown self-published The Da Vinci Code when nobody standard would publish it. So did the guy who wrote The Celestine Prophecy. The corporations jumped in and bought both after they were already proven best sellers on their own.
The writers and the artists and the musicians will be fine in the long run, as long as they can change and adapt.
The jobs of the future will look different, feel different and be different than the ones we have now.
They will be in areas and industries that don’t exist yet and that we cannot yet imagine.
But not only has that process not stopped happening, it’s actually working at a far accelerated pace from anything we saw before 1960.
Change is not bad, and it is not going to lead to anything at all like your dystopia.
So it’s Friday, the beginning of a very long week-end–bank holiday, in the parlance of those of you in the Commonwealths and England–and I’ve spent most of it getting nowhere and getting frustrated.
But I now have four straight days when, as far as I can figure out, I have nothing to do but write and take care of business, and no reason at all to set an alarm.
This does me less good than you’d think, because by now my internal clock knows when it’s “supposed” to wake up, and it tends to do it whether I want it to or not.
But in the meantime, I’ve had a chance to look at most of what Elf posted, and read through it a couple of times, and wonder why it was the program passed all his posts right through but one, which it decided to treat as evil death spam. Since I couldn’t see any difference between it and the others, I guess I’ll just have to put it down to one of the mysteries of the universe.
All that said–what bothers me about all those articles is the assumption that, with the exception of the changes they are warning us against, all the world is going to just stand still.
I don’t think it’s true that we are doing less and less innovation, or less and less often producing new jobs in unthought of areas to replace the old ones we have mechanized.
Transitions are not instantaneous, but they do happen. They have always happened. Why assume–as these articles assume, and as Elf also seems to be assuming–that they will not happen any more?
My older son is fond of saying that human beings are very bad at imagining what we’re going to get good at. The best science fiction writers of their time took us to space, gave us warp speed…and portrayed computers as things the size of small buildings.
I have the same problem with a lot of the material on climate change. I’ve got no problem accepting that climate change is happening or even that we’re likely to be causing it.
I don’t understand why the only response anybody can think of is “develop huge overarching global institutions to bring us back to the status quo ante.”
It seems to me that there are many possible responses to climate change, including many possible ways of adapting to it. And adapting would be painful, but so are most of the ways in which various people have responding to it now.
There is too much, in all of this, that seems to me to be fear of change because it’s change.
But there’s something else, and I’ve noticed it a lot not only here, but in public discussion when I was still living in England.
The futurescape suggested in these articles–and the one suggested by Michael himself–is the futurescape seen from the point of view of the coasts, and of people who see “normal” as working for large institutions (corporations, government, universities) that provide stability, broadly based benefits, and at least the illusion that the enterprise and its largesse will outlast our lifetimes.
But most people don’t work for companies like that, and they never have. They aren’t watching such jobs disappear. The jobs they have never had anything to do with that kind of environment to begin with.
It reminds me of an article by a very famous mystery agent, published back in the early ’80’s, about “how to tell if you’re ready to quit your day job.”
Remember, the man intoned–and he was a sweetheart, really, I shouldn’t laugh at him–you’re not just making $50,000 a year. You’re making that plus your health insurance, your sick days, your vacation days–add it all up, and you’re really making closer to $80,00. So, if you’re not making that much freelance, don’t quit your day job!
I nearly laughed myself silly. Most of the people I knew who were trying to go freelance full time weren’t making anything like $50,000 a year and didn’t have any benefits. They were working part time for minimum wage at anything they could get that would give them time to write. A “good” job was working part time as a clerk in a bookstore. That way you always knew what books were coming out, and some of those places gave employee discounts. Second best was waiting table where real published authors and editors hung out. Elaine’s was the place for “literary.” Bogey’s was the place if you wanted to write mysteries.
And, when all else failed–well, you could do pretty well if you got some training as a bartender.
I have no doubt that jobs in big bureaucratized institutions will be keenly sought after and highly competitive. I also have no doubt that lots of people are just not going to be interested, for the same reason they’re not interested now.
Security is a good thing to have, but most of us are not willing to trade the rest of our lives for it.
And at the same time that Watson and company are making it possible for Big Corporations and Big Institutions and Big Government to hire fewer and fewer workers, related technology is making it possible for more and more people to do without Big Institutions. Musicians put out their own music on their own labels. Writers put up their own books in e-formats. Filmmakers go off on their own and make the movie they can’t make when five guys in suits are trying to make them make it just like Last Year’s Hit, which was about a rabbit who became a nun.
Part of my difference of opinion here may come from the fact that I’ve never had much use for stocks. I’ve owned some, on and off, but if I’d ever had the chance of wanting to own some again, the Martha Stewart case killed it for me for good.
(A point here–most people say Stewart went to jail for “insider trading.” But she didn’t. She went to jail for telling a meeting of her stockholders that she was innocent of stockholder trading and would not be found guilty by any court. And, in fact, she was right–they couldn’t get it for that. But they could get her for saying that, even though she turned out to be telling the truth. No, I don’t get it either. And I know when I don’t know enough to keep myself out of trouble, so I’ll just pass on that sort of thing.)
“Stockholder democracy” was always a myth. Back in the 1950s, one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious brokerages got nailed for selling stock whose prices it knew were going to decline to its small customers–the stock having belonged to its big customers, who were therefore protected.
To the extent that the idea existed in reality at all, it consisted of just those stockholder suits I was talking about yesterday, decisions that forced management to a lot that was bad for the company in the long run while looking really neat in the short.
If more and more companies are going private, I say–good. Excellent, in fact. I’d rather have Apple making its decisions on the basis of the owners’ passion for computers than on its stockholders’ need for an uptick in the third quarter.
And if they act like idiots–well, they’ll go down without taking my retirement account with them.
There are two other things, but I’m getting to the end of my ability to pay attention when I write.
The first thing is an unfortunate truth, that has been with us now for centuries. As technology advances, the minimum level of intelligence necessary to function in it gets higher. We consider people “mentally challenged” now who would have been considered perfectly normal–hell, even average, 150 years ago.
The second thing is that that imagined future world, where there are billionaires and everybody else is starving, is an impossibility.
It’s an impossibility because the billionaires only get to be billionaires by selling things to people who are not billionaires.
If they ever managed to manufacture a world of nothing but us and them, it would collapse on their heads.
But I’ll leave that and some other things until tomorrow, and see what I can do about this pot roast.
I was actually having a pleasant afternoon, thinking about this blog, when I ran into a perennial problem. Somebody or the other in an official capacity whose help I need to get something done looked at my paperwork, saw I was self-employed, and demanded to see “a profit and loss statement” for the “business.”
But, of course, I don’t run a business, I don’t even know what a profit and loss statement looks like, even if I wrote done my expenses they’d be mostly negligible and they wouldn’t make any sense (shipping, $5.95), so it is literally not possible to give her what she wants.
I’ve got a call in. I’ll straighten it out eventually. It just gets really tiring to have to explain this stuff over and over and over again.
But as to Mike’s dystopian future, a couple of things.
First, I tend to think that we always bitch and moan that everybody’s job is being destroyed by technology and they’ll be left to starve in the street, but that isn’t what usually happens. When X job becomes obsolete, people tend to move on to Y, and Y is often something nobody expected.
I don’t know if the workers in the buggy whip factory were feckless enough to drift off into nothingness when the automobile arrived, but my guess is that most of them–or their sons–got jobs in automobile factories.
My friend’s mother who was a keypunch operator many years ago became a data entry clerk working on a computer, then a customer service rep where all her work was on a computer and the data was already entered. Those jobs didn’t exist when she got the keypunch job, and the keypunch job didn’t exist when she first started working.
That said, I know the transition isn’t easy most of the time, and it’s impossible for some people. But I don’t know what you’d even want to do about that. Stopping change isn’t a good thing, and it isn’t possible in the long run.
I don’t expect that we’ll end up with the “owners” who own everything and the rest of us starving in the street, for a number of reasons.
The most important of these is that the “owners” only get their money by virtue of the rest of us spending ours. Nintendo won’t make gobs of money eliminating work for the people who buy GameBoy DSes and Wiis. That’s not the stuff you buy when you’re poor.
The stuff that worries me is not the rich having lots of money, but a couple of tendencies that are society wide.
The first is the “professionalization” of everything, and its concommittant bureaucratization.
That tendency wrecks not just individuals, but entire businesses.
I’ve spent the week watching Borders crash and burn, and it’s a classic case. When that chain started, it had several things going for it over its competitors, as well as economies of scale going for it over the local mom and pop places in the towns were it moved in.
It had a staff that knew books, for one thing. They knew them and they loved them, and they stayed for years in a single location just to be around the books and talk to people (customers) about them. It had carefully constructed ties to the local communities, too, staging events and targetting displays with what it knew to be local interest.
Then the money men moved in, and the inevitable happened. The experienced and knowledgable staff was let go for cheaper clerks who might never have read a book, but were willing to work for peanuts. Cut costs and you’ll make more money, right?
The local interest stuff mostly went, too, in favor of campaigns directed for the central office. After all, why give away free publicity when you could get publishers to pay for it. Want a place for your book up near the front doors? That’ll cost you. How about a place on the newsletter’s “recommended” list? That’ll cost you, too.
This is an enormously stupid way to run a bookstore, but in and of itself it wouldn’t bother me. Doing nonsense like that will usually get you…well, what it got Borders this week.
And that’s life. The next guy who comes along will look at your mistakes and do things differently. That’s how the world runs. Oh, well.
Except, not now.
The big problem with what just happened to Borders is that the next guy to come along can’t fix it. Even Borders can’t fix it. Why?
Because it would take literally decades to prove that the more expensive plan is a better business plan in the long run. In the short run, if you do all those expensive things Borders did when it was first starting out, and you’re a public company–there will be a stockholder’s suit in no time flat, and the courts will demand that you do that cost cutting stuff right now. Otherwise, you’re not acting in the best interests of the stockholders, which are defined as having their stock go steadily up in price.
This is, by the way, why you can’t find anything to watch on TV. Advertisers pay a premium for a single demographic: single people without children between the ages of 18 and 34.
The more of this group your television station can attract, the higher the price it can charge per quarter minute of advertising time.
Of course, this demographic is naturally limited in size, and with everybody chasing after it you’re going to lose what profit you could have made satisfying the other demographics who are searching desperately for something to watch–but, hey, your stockholder’s action group sees you’re targetting senior citizens and the ad dollars you can get from that are half what you can get for the golden demographic, and there comes another law suit.
Too many decisions aren’t discretionary any more. And that includes everything from the core mission of a business (see above), to who it hires (don’t care what the labor pool is like in your area, your numbers better not trip any wires at EOC), to how it furnishes its offices (no stationary chairs at computer stations, even if you have to let go your best secretary when she can’t sit in them).
Businesses hire incompetent college graduates and turn away very competent high school graduates for the same job–because you can’t prove competence at a discrimination hearing, but you can prove credentials. They follow elaborate rules on workplace “safety’ that often don’t make much sense but that are the only protection they have if somebody complains.
But it’s not just businesses that have that problem. Under the HIPPA laws, a nurse can lose not just her job, but her license, for giving out information she isn’t authorized to give out. Under mandatory reporting laws, she can lose both if she doesn’t report any “suspicion” she might have of child or elder abuse. It just makes sense to refuse to give out any information at all until she’s ordered to, even if that means that an old woman will die without being able to see her children at the end. It just makes sense to report anything at all that anybody at all might think is strange, even if her gut is telling her that it isn’t that kind of thing at all.
Then there are teachers, who find themselves in the position of having to deliver mandated results made up by people who seem never to have entered a classroom at all–and to do it while making sure that virtually all of their charges get to graduate from high school.
The nearly breathless stupidity of this is hard to fathom unless you’ve taught somebody these days. The No Child Left Behind standards seem to have been somebody’s wish list of what every child should learn, unrelated in any way to what children actually learn and even more unrelated to the facts on the ground about differences in school populations.
It might have been plausible if the other side of it had been simply to flunk the kids who didn’t meet standards. Here’s what it means to complete the sixth grade. If you do it, fine. If you don’t do it, come back and try again next year, or not.
Instead, we blamed the teachers and the schools and acted as if there weren’t anything at all in the way of “success” except the schools not trying.
Which doesn’t mean they were trying, but you see what I’m saying here.
The other thing that gets to me is this: we aren’t seeing “jobs” disappear, we’re seeing certain kinds of jobs disappear. The issue isn’t doctors and lawyers and university professors and architects and engineers. We’ll still have those.
The issue is bogus “white collar” jobs, many of which were makeshift to begin with. They existed because we needed some place to put our kids who got “college” degrees that weren’t really college degrees.
It doesn’t bother me at all that paralegals may be elbowed out by smart machines. I know what paralegals do, at least in the law firms I’m used to. They’re paid better than secretaries–most law firms insist their paralegals have “degrees”–but they do work the secretaries did better.
As to the “junior associates,” the fact is that we’re turning out far more law school graduates than we have work for anywhere, and more and more of them from largely undistinguished and undemanding programs.
They’re like a lot of other “college graduates” we’re producing, including a fair number of PhDs who do not in fact have the training their “degrees” say they have and who in fact cannot do the actual work of the business or profession they want to enter.
But we’ve turned university education into a vast industry, the health of which requires more and more “students” taking more and more courses, no matter how lame or useless.
And those students will come out and simply refuse to take the kind of job they went to “college” to escape from.
And the result of all this is that kids who are not rich now have a harder time than they ever have before getting an actual college education. When the budget cuts hit, the local state college isn’t going to cut business administration and elementary education. It’s going to cut French, classics and physics, because, you know, nobody takes those.
I seem to have gone on and on forever here, and done it without ever getting into Kelo.
Maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.
I have just had one of those days on the Internet that makes me wonder why we don’t all go back to using manual typewriters and get it over with. It would be faster.
I did it in order to get hold of this link:
And getting hold of it was so bad, and took so much time, that before I came onto WordPad to write this post, I sent it to myself. And now I’m going to stop for a moment and make sure I’ve saved this to drafts, because I don’t want to spend another two hours trying to find it and get it to load again.
The article is from a web site called The Daily Kos, which is at
and which is a fairly predictable liberal-to-left.
I don’t look at it very much, not because it’s liberal to left–I look at a lot of those–but because its owner has been on Olbermann’s show a couple of times and come off as an arrogant ass. I get all the arrogant ass I want these days from eye surgeons. I don’t need to go looking for it on the Web.
This article was posted to Facebook by a friend from rec.arts.mystery, which is a site I used to visit a lot and now have very little time for.
I’ve reposted it here because I found myself being oddly ambivalent about its message–or rather, not its message, but some of the things it touched on.
Let’s clear up a couple of the little things first.
1) Like all these sites, on the right as well as on the left, the writers simply cannot pass up a chance to be tendentious. In this case, the tendentiousness arises in the form of reporting “inequality” by “mean individual income” rather than mean household income, something that makes the gap look much wider than it actually is.
2) The article also leaves out the elephant in the living room–the problem is never that there is “a huge gap between rich and poor.” That’s always the case. The problem is whether or not there is a gradually increasing level of wealth and income between the rich and the poor. When we say of a country that it has a large gap between rich and poor, what we’re almost always saying is that it lacks a middle class. There are rich people and poor people, and that’s it. This is not our problem, and never has been.
3) The article relies–as all such articles do–on an assumption: that the very fact that some people have far more than other people is prima facie evidence of “injustice.”
But I don’t think this is true. I think it is entirely just that Bill Gates lives in a house he needs a golf cart to get around in and the local crack addict lives on the street. I think it is entirely just that Bill Gates lives in that house and I live in mine, which is, after all, somewhat smaller.
I don’t even have a problem with people who inherit the stuff. If I make money honestly, it is mine by right, whether it amounts to 50 billion dollars or 50 cents, and as mine by right is mine to distribute as I wish. If what I feel like doing with it is leaving it to my intellectually challenged relatives–well, I’m an idiot, but that should be nobody’s business but my own.
Nor does it bother me that so many of the people who get rich do it by doing things I have little or no respect for. There is no cosmic value system by which one set of things is “really worth it” and others are not even if people want them.
In a capitalist system, people get rich by giving the public what it wants for what it wants to pay for it. The public often has the taste of a pet rock, but that, too, is nobody’s business but its own.
And it would do us all good to try to remember that Stephen King isn’t “worth 5 million dollars a book.” He’s worth $7.99 to five million people, or more. And, really, it’s hard to argue that the books aren’t worth $7.99.
But I said I was ambivalent about this piece, and I am, so I might as well get to what makes me ambivalent.
First is the fact that a lot of people are making money not by selling books at $7.99 or software packages at $300. They’re making it by getting the government to give it to them.
And I’m not talking about “welfare queens,” either. The thing that bothered me most about the crash of the financial system was not that people were doing stupid reckless things–it happens. Nor was it that a bunch of big banks nearly went belly up and took the rest of us with them.
What bugs me is that most of those people still have their jobs and all of them still have their money.
The entire idea of risk to reward is this–you take big risks, you win big rewards, if you win. If you lose, you go crash on the sidewalk, and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.
The guys who lost should, right now, be taking bottles back to the grocery store to see if they can work up enough money to take the kids to McDonald’s tonight–and they should be doing it in Hope, Mississippi, because Manhattan is now way too expensive.
Instead, most of these people have their private jets and their pied a terres on the Upper East Side, and none of them that I know of has to worry about how to pay the next electric bill.
I do know people who worked on Wall Street and crashed and burned after the meltdown, but they were all low level traders who had no responsibility at all for setting the policies that got their firms into this them.
I should not have to listen to bankruptcy court judges fretting about whether giving Mr. CEO of the Mortgage Company enough left over after his debts have been discharged to “live as he is accustomed to.”
I mean, what?
The second thing is something I’ve brought up before–it bothers me how we’ve somehow become a culture where nothing matters but the money.
Something has gone wrong when we no longer really care how somebody got his money, as long as he has it, and the more the better. And something has gone wrong when “having money” means spending as much of it as possible for stuff that is…well, it’s just stuff.
If you’ve made your money honestly–and not by getting the government to bail you ought of wrecking your bank–then I think you have an absolute right to buy a car for a million dollars. I just think we were a better culture when most people would have been embarrassed to do it, because it’s…stupid.
And you know, gauche.
A bit much, as they used to say when I was growing up.
I also think it’s one thing to really love writing horror stories and dedicate you life to it and then find that you’ve made a pile of cash, and another to dedicate your life to making cash any way you can get it.
Most of the people I admire in this world have done the first thing and not the second. Most of the things I truly hate about modern life–the way “not for profit” hospitals take tax deductions for being charities and then have collections departments that would put credit card companies in jail; the way everything from elementary school education to nuns providing services to the poor and homeless to little church quartets doing Bach fret about cost/benefit ratios and maximizing revenue flow.
The streets need the potholes fixed. Your public library is supposed to be a repository of the culture and carry even the stuff you don’t think you want to read. The Middlebury police really do deserve working police radios.
I’m not making that last one up.
In the middle of all this, I find myself what I can only say is not sanguine about the prospects of anything changing any time soon.
The Democrats are completely clueless about why people so strenuously oppose all their programs for “the public good.” They fall back on “well, those people must be stupid or racist or both.”
But when your average American attracted by the Tea Party rants and rails about “too much government regulation,” he isn’t talking about the regulation of Wall Street banks and huge corporations.
He’s talking about the regulation of himself.
You want a single payer health care plan, expanded public benefits and a stronger financial regulation bill?
Do what you have to–support the passage of Constitutional amendments if you have to–to end the endless government nattering and regulating of private habits. Shut up about “the obesity epidemic.” Stop passing laws forbidding smoking in restaurants (and talking about passing laws forbidding smoking at home when there’s a child in the house). Reform the juvenile and family court systems so that people don’t lose their Constitutional rights as soon as they have to deal with them. Get used to the fact that some things may have to differ between states, including some very big things, like abortion, gay marriage, and whether or not the local school gets to give a Christmas concert.
I wonder endlessly if the Democrats are ever going to understand just how much of the public opposition to the new health care reforms comes from the fear that a new government benefit will be a wedge for yet more government regulation of private and local life.
I wonder endlessly if the Democrats are ever going to understand that they can have their social agenda, or their economic agenda–but that they will never have both.
FDR understood that.
In the meantime, when the Republicans say they want to shrink government, the left thinks “they want to let corporations off the hook!” And they’re largely right.
The ordinary guy in the street thinks, “yes! this means I can tell that obnoxious social worker from school that Johnny isn’t going on Ritalin and there’s nothing she can do about it.”
If you’re sitting on the left and thinking that it’s impossible, letting East Podunk, Louisiana have Christmas concerts, teach abstinence, and eliminate all mention of Darwin from biology class is just going too far–people have rights!
Well, if you’re thinking that, try thinking instead of what you’d feel if the law demanded that your school pray to Jesus every morning and spend health class teaching that any girl who has sex before marriage is a slut.
In the end, it’s all about the culture.
And, in a way differently than this article intends, the money.
So, I had a very nice evening, curtesy of a good friend of mine who sent me a copy of the best cozy ever written, Charlotte MacLeod’s Rest You Merry.
It manages to be a cozy in the way I have defined cozies without driving me up a wall, and I don’t really know if I can analyze why that is. There is a certain amount of cutesy, but it doesn’t cloy. Everything is light without making me feel as if I’ve been transported into a world of sugarplums where a bloody corpse on the living room floor exhibits about the same level of emotion as a badly done steak at a moderately priced restaurant.
I knew Charlotte when she was alive. She was a nice woman, exactly what you’d expect from the books–and very New England, in everything from taste in teas to politics.
That said, there’s another reason why I had a nice evening last night, and that had to do with the mail, which brought with it second half statements on sales of Gregor Demarkians last year.
Without going into a lot of specifics that are none of the Internet’s business, let me just say that it was obvious from those statements that Cheating at Solitaire is out there doing a lot better than my books usually do.
And it’s Cheating at Solitaire in particular, not the books generally.
Which brings me to a set of interesting questions.
Okay, questions that are interesting to me.
The first is that there is only one thing I can think of that was truly different about the publication of Cheating at Solitaire–and that was the reviews.
Specifically, the very print reviews, in prestige organs, that we were talking about the other day, and that most of you, and I, dismissed as being largely irrelevant to why we buy anything.
Cheating at Solitaire got starred reviews from all three of the big three major pre-pub review organs, Publishers Weekly, Books in Review and Kirkus.
That was, as far as I can tell, the only real difference. Except that the book was, you know, not on a very “serious” subject.
And although the book was reviewed well in print, it wasn’t reviewed all that well online.
Most of you say you read for escape. I apparently have a number of constant readers who large read for escape from trash television and manufactured celebrities, so the worst online reviews I’ve ever gotten have been for Cheating at Solitaire and Wanting Sheila Dead.
I wonder what it’s going to be like for the one coming out this summer, Flowering Judas. That one is neither celebrities nor politics. It’s just dead people in a small town.
But at the moment, the book business is in free fall. One of the large chains is rumored to be days away from bankruptcy, and their sales have fallen off so badly that even reliably best selling authors are off from last year, but just in that one store.
I’ve been thinking about the line about publishers publishing what people want to read, but I think that may be harder than anybody realizes.
For one thing, the audience is fragmented.
For another, you’ve got those people who don’t read much that you have to sell books to, and as far as I can figure out, they have very different requirements than Constant Readers do.
Constant readers hated the celebutantes. First time readers loved them.
Finding something that will satisfy everybody’s particular ideas about what they want to read this week would take a lot of calculating with a lot of unknown variables.
And I’ve never been all that good at math.
So, it’s Saturday, and I’m having a very strange day. For one thing, last night I got the first decent sleep I’ve had since all this stuff started with Greg.
I have no idea why this was the case. Nothing had changed, at that point–nothing much has changed now–and everything I’ve been worrying about is still there to worry about. Maybe my body just got to the point where it couldn’t help itself. At any rate, I slept.
Still, as is the way with these things, even though I woke up many hours past my usual hour, I was still exhausted, and I still am. This means I have been dragging myself around the landscape without getting much of anything done, and without being able to concentrate very well on what little I did get done.
I’m still wending my way through Augustine, and yesterday I’d gotten to a part that really wasn’t what I needed. Wrath of God. Worthlessness of the human being after the Fall. That kind of thing.
Fortunately, by the time I arrived on my love seat this morning, we’d gotten past that, and I found myself in a long set of passages about two things I actually find interesting instead of just distressing.
(I don’t know what theologians thought they were doing when they got into that miserable worm thing (think Jonathan Edwards and “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God”), but it really isn’t conducive to getting nonbelievers to think Christianity is a good idea.)
Anyway, the two things that interested me were first a section on the exegesis of various things in Genesis, and next a little talk on the reported marvels of the world.
Genesis first. I have on my bookshelves a thick hardcover book called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, by C. Dennis McKinsey, put out by Prometheus Books in 1995. It contains page after page after page of supposed mistakes of fact, science and history in the Bible, and whole lists of places where the Bible is supposed to contradict itself.
I say supposed, because although some of the items are perfectly legitimate, a lot of the others are tendentious in the extreme. Some depend for what force they have on a sort of know-nothing refusal to understand how a literary text actually functions. In this category I’d certainly put the supposed “contradictions” in the four Gospels about the scene at Christ’s tomb on the day He supposedly rose from the dead. The “criticisms” rely on the assumption that each Gospel writer was of course attempting to describe the scene in every precise detail.
But anybody who has ever looked through eyewitness reports of anything knows that this is not what happens. Instead, each witness stresses those things that seem important at the time. They’ll say, “There were a bunch of people there. Mary and Shirley were there” because Mary and Shirley are important to them in some way. They don’t mean nobody but Mary and Shirley were there.
If you see what I mean.
At any rate, the guy used to have a website, but I couldn’t find it this afternoon. I did find a lot of other things in the same vein, and you’re welcome to google them if you want to.
But what interested me about this portion of Augustine was this: the issues argued in Augustine’s book are the same as the ones argued in McKinsey’s.
Nothing has changed, in all these years, about what people find credible and incredible about the Bible. There it all is, written in the year 410 or so: problems with the proportions of the ark, with the which animals were on board and what they ate, with how the animals got from the ark and onto remote islands after the Flood waters receded.
In fact, there were some issues that I’d never seen argued in any modern forum, including some about discrepancies between translations.
Adam and Eve were there, though, with Augustine cheerfully saying that, of course, their children married each other, sisters and brothers, because it would have been okay then because that was all there was to marry.
Well, okay, among other things.
But quite a few of the issues that make modern day defenders of Biblical literalism squirm caused Augustine no problem at all–but then, he wasn’t a Biblical literalist.
The second thing that interested me was a glancing reference to reports of marvels in faraway countries–of men with no necks and their faces coming out of their torsos, of people whose voices came out of their hands, or lots of things like that.
By the time you get to the high Middle Ages, this sort of thing is a popular genre. People would go off on long trips and write books when they came back, describing their travels and all the wonderful and strange things they saw.
The most famous of these is, of course, the travelogue produced by Marco Polo about his trips to China in the fourteenth century. But what they don’t tell you in school is that the reason Polo’s book is famous is because he managed to write it without…making stuff up.
Most of the people who wrote these things simply went off the deep end and invented all kinds of nonsense, including the kind of thing I was talking about above.
A lot of them claimed to have found and visited the kingdom of Prester John, who supposedly ruled over a kingdom of Christians entirely surrounded by hostile Muslims and Pagans somewhere in “the Orient.” That would have been sane enough if it wasn’t also said that his kingdom contained the Fountain of Youth and bordered the Garden of Eden, where an angel stood guard at the gate.
He was supposed to have a mirror from which he could see any part of his kingdom, in detail, no matter how far away, sort of like a Medieval magic version of those neighborhood satellite cams where you can get on the Internet and look at your house from space.
It was that kind of thing.
A few years ago–eh, maybe back in the Eighties or early Nineties?–Umberto Eco produced a novel called Baudolino, which was supposed to be just one of those Medieval travelogues, complete with marvels and wonders. I loved that novel.
And I wondered then, as I wonder now, why people did that–why they do it now, for that matter. Why does a James Frey write fiction and call it fact? Why did the Medieval travel writers do that?
And then, of course, there’s always the possibility that it wasn’t really fiction, or not all of it was.
It did turn out that there were people in Africa called Pygmies.
And they were very, very short.